One of the key differences between Irma Vep the movie and Irma Vep the HBO limited series is the character of René Vidal — which is a little odd, since René is the only character besides the costumer Zoe, whose name is shared by both projects. In the movie, René is played by French New Wave legend Jean-Pierre Léaud, which makes his listlessness as the director of the movie-within-the-movie a comment on France’s aging old guard and its feckless attempt to conjure the past to assert its own relevancy. But in Irma Vep the series, René is a stand-in for Olivier Assayas, who perhaps is starting to feel the self-doubt that Léaud’s René felt now that he’s on the wrong end of middle-aged. In 1996, Assayas was the hippest filmmaker on earth, with a brilliant debut feature, 1994’s Cold Water, that had given him the cachet to convince one of the world’s most glamorous stars, Maggie Cheung, to play herself in his second movie. And to marry him after that!
It’s not as if Assayas’ reputation has suffered in the least now that he’s over 25 years older. His former partner is Mia Hanson-Løve, a superb director in her own right, whose recent film Bergman Island, with Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth, offered its own meta-commentary on their relationship. He has given Kristen Stewart roles in Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper that have bolstered her reputation as a serious actor post-Twilight trilogy. Perhaps his self-deprecating take on René in this series is a case of false modesty, a clever gesture to the audience that he realizes how silly it is for him to revisit Irma Vep in the form of a niche-y TV show (or, rather, an eight-hour movie broken up into hour-long episodes). There is certainly a lightness to this Irma Vep that suggests that Assayas may not be taking it as seriously as he would another project.
Yet this excellent episode, “The Poisoner,” digs into an essential question for any artist: “Why are we doing this?” In the money scene, René invites Mira over to his apartment for an urgent morning meeting before her call time, which sets the expectation that this temperamental director might be unhappy with her performance or has some important insight into her character that he needs to share with her. But that’s not what this meeting is about. It’s much worse than that. When René opens the door in his bathrobe, it immediately calls to mind the horror of Harvey Weinstein holding “meetings” with young actresses in his hotel room, but in this case, it’s alarming for other reasons. René simply cannot motivate himself to dress. He had a dream the night before about Jade (his Maggie Cheung) visiting his apartment like a ghost, reminiscing about their strange, failed relationship. And he’s woken up feeling like doing a second Irma Vep is a pointless endeavor.
To her credit, Mira is having none of it. She’s struggling with her own artistic and romantic uncertainties, but she’s level-headed enough to know that the show must go on. As René frets about tackling the work of a director like Louis Feuillade, Mira shrugs it off, saying (correctly) that the original Les Vampires is “no masterpiece,” and Feuillade isn’t on a level with greats like Carl Dreyer or Fritz Lang. When he keeps going, Mira shuts him down completely: He’s being “self-indulgent,” and the first step to getting over it is to “stop whining.” But what he’s really telling her, beyond confessing his inadequacies, is that she’s the only one capable of redeeming the project. “You can save it,” he says. And all she can do is shrug and reply, “Well, I have to. This is all we have right now.” At a minimum, he should think about getting dressed and finding his way to set.
Then again, who can blame René for feeling so despondent? One big reason this Irma Vep is being made at all is the backing of Gaultier, which wants Mira to be the face of a new perfume line called Dreamscape. The head of Gaultier visits the set as part of a hard push to get Mira to sign on to the campaign, which will involve a photo shoot and multiple public appearances, though both Mira and her agent Zelda read the set visit as a sign of desperation. As he courts Mira, he also offers some harsh words for René: He’s disappointed that an Asian actress he’d promised to cast hasn’t been secured because that market is important. And he dismisses the whole enterprise as unimportant in itself. “I’m told our viewers won’t find it bingeworthy,” he says. It’s obvious that Gaultier’s primary reason for supporting an Irma Vep series is to cultivate the company’s relationship with Mira. No wonder René decides to rest the fate of it on her shoulders.
As for Mira, she’s feeling dangerously adrift, too, though she mostly keeps it to herself. Putting on the catsuit and wandering around the hotel is about her private desire for freedom and anonymity, of doing the unexpected. Zelda keeps pressing her to take a role in a Silver Surfer reboot she’s repeatedly said she doesn’t want, and her signing with Gaultier seems like a low-commitment concession to getting her own agent off her back. On a personal front, she flirts with Zoe and takes a scooter ride back to her hotel but doesn’t follow through on the sexual encounter that Zoe is expecting. She winds up reserving that for Eamonn, who turns up in the middle of the night with news that his singer girlfriend has suffered a miscarriage.
In a screwed-up way, this tragedy opens the door for Mira and Eamonn to rekindle their relationship, if only for a night. Here are two actors and ex-lovers stranded in Paris, committed to projects that won’t let either of them go anywhere else, simply because the show must go on. In the midst of uncertainty, their renewed intimacy is familiar and inviting. And, quite possibly, a fresh disaster for both of them.
• René’s insistence that a crane shot in the party scene grazes the top of the extras’ heads shows an admirable consistent impulse to make his set as dangerous as possible.
• Thurston Moore’s score for Irma Vep really asserts itself in this episode to characteristically unconventional effect. You might expect a buzzy guitar ambiance from him, but the score has a more subtly unsettling effect on the show-within-the-show as if to further upset the rhythm of the scenes. Something seems deliberately off about it.
• Edmond’s inferiority complex continues to rage both on-screen and off. He complains to René that his character is “diminished” by another character picking up on a key piece of evidence, and then he wonders why Mira and the newly arrived Hong Kong actress both get personal assistants but not him. “Do you see me as a loser?”
• “Time doesn’t heal. Time buries pain, but the wounds remain.”